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Oregon governor brings an end to Portland-area toll plan

To toll, or not to toll, that is the question for Oregon lawmakers as they continue work on a comprehensive plan to create a sustainable revenue stream that will support the state’s transportation infrastructure.

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek sowed confusion on Monday when she halted plans to toll Portland-area freeways, citing uncertainty about freeway project costs and the amount of revenue that tolling would amass.

Kotek’s announcement came through a letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, the body that sets the state’s transportation policy.

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek told transportation commissioners to pull the plug on a tolling plan for the Portland area that has been in the works since 2017.

Oregon Governor’s Office

“The state’s path towards implementing tolling in the Portland metro area is uncertain, at best. After years of work, the challenges of implementing the Regional Mobility Pricing Project (RMPP) have grown larger than the anticipated benefits,” Kotek wrote. “Therefore, I believe it is time to bring the agency’s work on the RMPP to an end and delay additional expenditures for implementation of tolling on I-205 to the future when the Legislature can further evaluate and provide clearer direction on tolling.”

Her letter singles out the transportation department’s plan to impose per-mile tolls on interstate 5 and 205 from Wilsonville, 18 miles south of downtown Portland, to the city’s northern border on the Columbia River.

Plans to toll the I-5 bridge that crosses the Columbia River into Washington, funding that will help support bridge replacement costs, will continue, according to the governor. It is not clear whether her edict would affect proposals to toll other bridges, like the Abernethy Bridge.

“Taking this action today will allow the state to focus its limited resources on high priority needs and provide an opportunity for meaningful legislative conversations about alternative revenue sources in the 2025 legislative session,” Kotek wrote.

The concept of imposing tolls on the Portland-area freeways has caused a stir.

Pressure from politicians who represent Clackamas County to the south and east of Portland has grown as residents complained about the expense of proposed tolls on I-205 and the possibility of drivers overwhelming surface streets to avoid paying.

Construction crews work on a highway in Oregon.

Oregon DOT

A February poll conducted by the firm DHM Research reported that 91% of voters in Clackamas County opposed tolling in the Portland metro region, while 76% of voters overall in the three Portland-area counties oppose the concept. The poll was commissioned by the cities of West Linn, Oregon City, Tualatin, and Wilsonville, along with the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 555.

This was after ODOT approved a plan in December to adjust fees for low-income drivers. Under the program, Oregon and Washington residents with a household income up to 200% of the federal poverty level would receive a tolling discount of at least 50%.

U.S. Representative Lori Chavez-DeRemer also tried to pressure Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt into halting tolling in Oregon during a House Transportation Infrastructure Committee hearing in December on highway and transit projects to be funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

She was asking if what she called ODOT’s inadequate efforts to gather public input could be a breach of federal regulations and prompt rejection of the federal environmental study.

In June, Kotek had already pushed out potential adoption of a tolling program from 2024 to 2026 requesting that ODOT do more research.

Transportation commissioners have previously said tolling needs to be part of the mix as the state tackles capital projects and works to maintain its road and transit systems.

Oregon Transportation Commission Chair Julie Brown and Vice Chair Lee Beyer both reiterated that stance in written statements.

“While I believe tolling cannot be the only tool to solve all our challenges, as steward of our state’s transportation system, I believe it should be one of our tools,” said Brown, longtime general manager of the Rogue Valley Transportation District. “I look forward to our continued conversations throughout the state to identify additional solutions to address our growing challenges and needs.”

Beyer, a former state lawmaker, said in his statement he had supported tolling, but metro leaders’ views have changed and “opposition to tolling makes it clear that Oregon is not ready for regional tolling.”

The legislature is in the middle of figuring out the best method of funding Oregon’s multi-model transportation system, said Rep. Susan McLain, D-Forest Grove, co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee. “We have the same task, we did on Monday, before the governor made her announcement.”

ODOT

Kotek’s decision represents a setback for a tolling program the state has reportedly spent $61 million investigating since state legislation was approved in 2017.

The governor was speaker of the Oregon House when the Legislature passed the expansive transportation bill that launched plans for tolling, along with adding a transit payroll tax, vehicle privilege tax and bicycle excise tax to reduce dependence on the gas tax and vehicle registration to fund transportation projects.

Rep. Susan McLain, D-Forest Grove, co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, said the governor’s letter does not necessarily represent the end of discussions on the issue.

Lawmakers will continue to work to find ways to fund every mode of transportation Oregon depends on, she said.

“We have the same task as we did on Monday,” McLain said. “The Legislature has the responsibility to make sure we have stable and diverse funding for our system and that hasn’t changed.”

Lawmakers have invested seven years in creating a plan around a systems fee that a “lot of folks thought was important, and not just for controlling congestion, but good for our climate goals as it would encourage people to use other transit modes in our system, like light rail or buses,” said McLain, who was part of the task force that drafted the 2017 legislation.

McLain said she has supported adopting a tolling system, as long as it’s a bespoke system, specific to the state’s needs.

“We are trying to keep an open mind,” McLain said. “Our No. 1 consideration is the general public, and how they function, in a fee system. We also need to make sure we have sufficient funds and resources to support the transportation system our public has asked for.”

In December, Oregon lawmakers approved $19 million of emergency funding to make sure the state had sufficient snowplow service to keep roads cleared during the winter, after ODOT began implementing service reductions citing a $56.1 million shortfall caused by a decline in gas tax revenues, record high inflation and limitations on budgeted agency funds.

Overall, the state’s economy is doing well with the state’s productivity gains outpacing the nation, according to the Oregon Economic and Revenue Forecast released in February.

The state’s economists said the state revenue outlook remains stable heading into the personal income tax filing season with general fund revenues expected to come in $76 million ahead of expectations in the December forecast, and total available resources $588 million ahead.

The state holds ratings of AA-plus from both S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings and Aa1 from Moody’s Ratings. All assign stable outlooks.

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